Getting Into The Zone: How School Leaders Can Find Flow
The summer months are a time for school leaders and their teams to pause, take a few deep breaths, and reflect on an important question: what lessons did we learn from the previous year, and what practices do we want to incorporate in the school year ahead? One element that often gets overlooked is flow.
For a moment, consider those times where you’ve felt entirely in your element as you’ve worked on a project or a task. How did you feel? Exhilarated? Euphoric? Did you sincerely enjoy the work—so much that you even lost track of time?
According to the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this act of “finding your flow”—also known as “being in the zone,” “firing on all cylinders,” or “hitting your stride”—is a state of “optimal experience” that each of us can incorporate into our daily lives, including our leadership. He called it “the secret to happiness.”
So why think about flow right now when the end of the school year is fast-paced and jam-packed? Because being able to recognize moments of flow within your work and leadership can help prepare you for the work you need to accomplish in the months ahead. Flow can also help remind you of the moments of joy and happiness that exist within your school—even if things are a little stressful right now.
Flow can also help remind you of the moments of joy and happiness that exist within your school—even if things are a little stressful right now.
The question is: how do you create more of these moments? And, how do you help others—your staff, your teachers, and even your students—do the same?
A deeper dive into “flow” — and why it’s good for us
Csikszentmihalyi is considered to be one of the co-founders of positive psychology, a segment of psychology that focuses on what makes people thrive. He was also the first to identify and research flow, and said that the best moments in our lives are not the times that are passive or relaxing. Instead, he maintained our best and most satisfying moments in life typically occur when our bodies and minds are “stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In his research, Csikszentmihalyi examined people who did activities for pleasure, even when money or fame was not part of the equation. He studied artists, writers, athletes, chess masters, and several other professions, and discovered they all had one thing in common: when they described their optimal states of performances, all of them talked about their work simply “flowing” out of them with minimal effort. It’s from here that he coined the term “flow state.”
So how does flow work? Csikszentmihalyi discovered there are eight characteristics that explain a flow state:
- A balance between challenge and skills
- The ability to concentrate completely on a particular tasks
- Clear goals and reward
- Transformation of time (either speeding up or slowing down)
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding
- There’s an effortlessness and ease to the work
- Action and awareness are merged, and self-consciousness is absent
- A feeling of control over the task
The experience of flow in everyday life, whether it’s our day-to-day work or our personal lives, is an important component of creativity and well-being. In fact, Teresa Ambile, a Harvard researcher, discovered that not only are people more creative during flow, but that creativity tends to stick around after the task as well.
The experience of flow in everyday life, whether it’s our day-to-day work or our personal lives, is an important component of creativity and well-being.
Four ways to discover—and cultivate—a flow state
If you’ve experienced flow, you know that sometimes, it can be elusive. Here are a few insights that can help you get—and stay—in the zone:
Create “micro-moments” of flow
Seek out shorter moments of flow. If you only have an hour, block that time, concentrate on completing one very specific task, and limit distractions, including email and phone notifications. The fewer distractions you have, the better chance you have of finding flow—even if it’s on a limited scale.
Smaller moments of flow make it possible to have much-needed immersion in your work while still being able to react as situations arise.
When we think about achieving flow, we might think about a long-distance runner who trains for several hours. In reality, most of us don’t have that kind of time—and much of school leadership success depends on agility. Smaller moments of flow make it possible to have much-needed immersion in your work while still being able to react as situations arise.
Notice and record when flow happens
The best way to truly understand your own relationship to flow is to be intentional in noticing when your flow states occur. The next time you feel focused and energized in your work, jot down a few notes. What type of work were you doing? Which of the eight characteristics did you notice? What were the conditions of the space or place where the work happened?
Flow state is typically achieved when an activity is challenging enough to keep your brain interested, but you’re skilled enough to tackle a particular challenge without it being too difficult. Keeping track of the activities that prompt your state of flow, and looking for patterns that might exist, can help to bring forward more of those immersive moments.
Continue to cultivate and nurture your—and your team’s—passions
As educators, we’ve witnessed the magic that happens when a student is learning something they’re truly passionate about. Adults have the ability to feel that magic, too. It’s important for school leaders to nurture the learning of their teams—supporting them in this way can help your teachers and staff find their own flow.
Keeping track of the activities that prompt your state of flow, and looking for patterns that might exist, can help to bring forward more of those immersive moments.
One example of how you can support your team’s learning is to prioritize intentional and targeted professional development. Giving teachers autonomy to chart their own course from a development perspective can encourage their own creativity and innovation while challenging them to serve their students in a different way. Similarly, offering distributed leadership opportunities—such as the chance to serve on an instructional leadership team or data team—can strike the same balance.
Don’t flow it alone
There’s a misconception that achieving flow is a singular activity—one that requires deep concentration by yourself. But researchers have discovered that social flow experiences are rated as more enjoyable than solitary flow experiences. This tells us that while it’s important to give your teachers time to find the flow in their own work, it’s just as crucial to offer collaborative opportunities.
When teams are able to align with a shared vision, feel psychologically safe, have open communication with one another, and are clear on roles and responsibilities, they have the optimal environment for group flow.
When teams are able to align with a shared vision, feel psychologically safe, have open communication with one another, and are clear on roles and responsibilities, they have the optimum environment for group flow.
Finding flow = happiness as a leader and educator
Achieving a flow state, and helping others in your orbit do the same, brings forward incredible benefits. Some of these—deeper concentration, finding increased meaning in your work, and a more joyful state of mind—may seem like solitary rewards.
However, flow, and the feeling it brings, can be carried from a single teacher to their classroom, to the entire school. When just one person in your school building—be it yourself or someone else—has immense satisfaction and pride in their work, there’s a ripple effect that lasts long after a single task is over. No matter where you are in the school calendar, everyone needs a dose of flow and the joy that it brings.